Ipanema’s weird characters in the seventies.
Ipanema has provided the world its famous girl, the former world surf and para-gliding champion Pepe, beach volley world champions, the Brazilian g-string bikini and several other marvels. It has also been the choice neighborhood of many artists, politicians and intellectuals, famous both inside and outside Brazil such as Vinicius de Moraes, Tom Jobim, Fernando Gabeira and so many others. Enough has been spoken about them. Any narrative will always leave out a neighborhood’s weird characters who give its soul and, according to some schools of thought, reflect suppressed angles and layers of it collective unconscious.
In the seventies and the early eighties (Lost Samba’s time) the neighborhood was in the fore front Brazil’s march into affluence and modernity. Its streets were alive with all sorts of alternative people: hippies, militants, surfers, old-school Bohemians, yuppies, traditional families and of course the army of porters, maids, nannies who served these people and the neighboring inhabitants of the Pavao and Pavaozinho favelas. In this melting pot it would be inevitable that striking characters would emerge and become references for the community’s history.
Damiao Experiencia was probably the first person in Rio de Janeiro with a Rastafarian hairstyle, we are talking about 1977-78, and it was very long. He dressed all in white and walked around with an uncovered old acoustic guitar covered in exoteric inscriptions, a bag full of books he authored. He caused a stir wherever he went and everyone imagined he was a hidden genius or a great artist although he remained a mystery as he never approached anyone nor did he do gigs. After the initial shock his presence was digested, people got accustomed to the daily presence and became ever more curious to know what he was about. It turned out that he came from the northeast of Brazil and wrote strange music that never played on the radio. This was not because his work was too far out of reach; he sold cassettes with his songs but to our disappointment they had no rhythm, his voice was deep but out of tune and his guitar skills were next to nothing.
There was also Chicao, a huge black guy with the fiercest face who hung out with the long-haired and Californian looking Surfers. There had never been anyone as strong and with such a mean aura to walk the streets of Ipanema, and probably there will never be. It was a given that the surfers smoked weed, and by default he did too. This was a great statement at the time; a black “maconheiro” who probably came from the favela hanging around in the streets of one of the most exclusive neighborhoods of the country. Legend said that even the police were afraid of him, he never smiled any wherever he went the fear crept in. I once saw him in a fight, it was during a carnival and he was on a small open van in a transgender costume with other guys of the surf gang, a porter said something making fun of them and Chicao got down and beat the hell of him. The big guy disappeared from Ipanema as fast as he appeared, I am not able to say why but I would guess that he ended badly, a guy like him would not have important relatives or friends to help him out when things went wrong.
The lady with a ribbon of tattooed stars under her bum was from the upper middle class but no one knew her name. She was blonde and had been part of Ipanema’s beauties in the sixties and lived in California when she was married to Paulo Sergio Valle a famous musician involved with the Bossa Nova, but by the time she started to get noticed she was in her late forties. She always kept to herself at the beach in a bikini. Her strong suntan combined very strangely with her David Bowie like make-up, wild haircuts and weird accessories such as pink Wellingtons. Legend said that she had taken too much acid in the early seventies and had never come back. In the beginning people could argue that she was sexy, she launched seductive looks at many a guy, but as the years passed time took its toll and she looked odder and odder; her endless gazes into the horizon and her inexplicable bursts of laughter signaled that there was something very wrong although after some time she began making friends with other weird characters and even found summer romances.
The old guy with a Pekinese was a constant presence at the beach too. No one remembers a day when he was not there, he was short and very tanned and had very long hair and a huge beard, which made him look like a mixture of Mahatma Ghandi and Gandalf from the Lord of the Rings in beach trunks. His companion was his little dog and it was difficult to say if he was a human version of his dog or vice-versa. apparently he lived in a house in Copacabana and came twice a day on foot to the Posto 9, where we used to go. He was friends with the kiosk owners among which Baptista, a big black guy in his forties, was the most influential. It was him who once told me that the small old guy was rich and that his house was big, something that only traditional families possessed in the South Zone. There was a big commotion the day that his dog died, everyone noticed it as they also noticed that after that his health began to deteriorate. His posture worsened even after he got himself a new Pekinese dog. He was still going to the beach everyday when I left Rio in 1989 when he must have been well into his eighties.
The last character here is Mr. Ether. This was a guy whose deterioration was followed by the entire neighborhood closely. People commented that he had been a medical student and came from a good family. I first saw him in the mid seventies when we moved to Ipanema, at the time he already stood out as a hippy-like figure, a strong guy with curly dark hair who always seemed to be stoned. The traditional citizens would always be scared when, in beach trunks, he laughed at their bourgeois mannerisms from the middle of the streets. At some point he took to inhaling ether, at first it made him even crazier but it didn’t take long for him to spend days sitting on the pavement with a cloth and a bottle of ether in his hands and with a dazed look on his face. He started sleeping on the streets and never left. The authorities would remove him but as soon as they released the guy he was back. As years passed he swelled up and stank of ether, one could sense him from blocks away and everyone felt amazed and sorry for the monstrous figure he had become, with his long hair and beard, his swollen body and his tramp like presence made him look like an alien from the Men In Black films thrown on the streets of Ipanema. I am not sure when he passed away but nobody could endure that tragedy anymore.